The Bob’s Big Boy that Almost Never Was

As I’ve said before, and as many of you know, I love visiting places that let you feel like you’ve stepped back in time, and one of those places is Bob’s Big Boy Broiler in Downey. But this place wasn’t always a Bob’s Big Boy, and it almost never was…

Bob's, a large, long flat roof building, with a jutting pointed sign reading "Bob's Big Boy Broiler"

It is no secret that Southern California is the heart and soul of custom car culture. One of the watering holes for hot rodders was Harvey’s Broiler, on Firestone Boulevard in Downey, a suburb of Los Angeles, but a place rich in unique California history.

Harvey’s opened in 1958 with husband and wife team Harvey and Minnie Ortner at the helm. Harvey hired local architect Paul B. Clayton to design his dream drive-in, and the result was a prime example of the spectacular Googie mid-century modern architecture that had swept California in the 1950s. When Harvey’s was built, it was the largest drive-in restaurant in Southern California. Minnie worked the front of house, serving as hostess, working the register, and training waitresses who served the supposed 5000 cars that came and went on weekends.

Not ten years after Harvey and Minnie opened their doors, they sold the property to Christos Smyrniotis, a former Harvey’s cook, who renamed it Johnie’s Broiler. He also came up with “Fat Boy” a sailor capped boy holding a cheeseburger who stood atop the roof. Johnnie’s closed its doors in February of 2002 (other sources say New Year’s Eve, 2001), and Smyrniotis leased the land to a used car business. Eventually Smyrniotis expressed a desire to demolish the structure and replace it with retail. However his application was incomplete, and the city wanted more information, especially since the property was eligible for historic landmark status. Then tragedy for car enthusiasts, architecture lovers, and locals alike struck. On a Sunday in January, 2007, bulldozers arrived. Without permits, without fencing around the property, and without even turning off the electricity, the bulldozers began tearing apart the Downey icon. Horrified onlookers called the police, who halted the illegal demolition. The front portion had been shredded, but the iconic “broiler” script sign remained intact. In 2008 Jim Louder, Bob’s Big Boy franchise operator, saw an opportunity and stepped in to save the Broiler. In the background of the photo of me gazing at the menu you can see a framed photograph of the carnage of the partial demolition.

Through the combined efforts of Downey citizens, the Downey City Council, the LA Conservancy, and Bob’s Big Boy, and using original blueprints, the Broiler reopened on October 19, 2009 under the name Bob’s Big Boy. Johnie’s isn’t entirely forgotten, tucked near the back corner of the parking lot sits “Fat Boy” who originally stop atop the roof before the spinning “Big Boy.”

A circular sign reading "Bob's Big Boy" in neon.

The massive sign atop the roof reading "Bob's Big Boy Broiler Original Double Deck Hamburger"

Bob's, a large, long flat roof building, with a jutting pointed sign reading "Bob's Big Boy Broiler"

"Coffee Shop" spelled out in blue neon.

Olive green semicircle booths sit against a rock wall.

A Bob's Big Boy statue of a dark haired boy in red and white check overalls holding a burger sits outside the restaurant.

A red sign reading "Bob's Big Boy Drive Thru" with a swirling yellow arrow.

Myself, seated at a booth, under a black and white photo of Johnie's partially destroyed.

A plastic, back lit sign of a cartoonish boy, in a sailor cap and blue and white stripe shirt, holding a large cheeseburger.

Inside, a vintage jukebox rests against white upholstered semicircle booths.

The massive sign atop the roof reading "Bob's Big Boy Broiler Original Double Deck Hamburger"

The drive-in portion, with a butterfly roof to shelter cars. "Drive In" is in blue neon letters atop.

Black and white photos of Bob's employees through the years above white semicircle booths.

"Drive-In" spelled out in blue neon.

Harvey’s/Johnie’s was also a local haunt for my dad, who grew up in at the epicenter of custom car culture, and literally around the corner from Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. During one of my dad’s visits we stopped at Bob’s for lunch, and my dad recalled his evenings cruising the area.

Through its different incarnations, the Broiler has been used for filming, most recently in Mad Men, in season 4’s episode 14, “Tomorrowland.”

Screencap from Mad Men: Don, in grey slacks and jacket, and black shirt, walks into Bob's. A jukebox is near the window, "Drive-In" is visible outside through the window.

Screencap from Mad Men: Don's family sits in an olive colored upholstered semicircle booth, with a rock wall behind them.

Grab a bite at Bob’s Big Boy Broiler in Downey at 7447 Firestone Boulevard.

Sources
Bob’s Big Boy. LA Conservancy. Accessed 6 January 2020.
Dominguez, Alex. “10 years later, remembering the destruction of Johnie’s Broiler.” The Downey Patriot, 10 January 2017. Accessed 6 January 2020.
History. Bob’s Big Boy Broiler. Accessed 6 January 2020.
McLellan, Dennis. “Minnie Ortner, 97; co-founded landmark Harvey’s Broiler.” Los Angeles Times, 5 October 2007. Accessed 6 January 2020.
Plaque on site.
Reitman, Valerie. “Johnie’s Broiler is cooked, to longtime fans’ dismay.” Los Angeles Times, 9 January 2007. Accessed 6 January 2020.

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